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Hitler has become a cartoon of himself – an interview with Daniel Erk

Daniel Erk, born in Stuttgart in 1980, holds degrees in Public Policy, Political Science and Communcation Studies. He works as author and journalist and is the editor of the Hitlerblog, an award-winning blog hosted by Germany’s left liberal newspaper „Die Tageszeitung” (taz). His work has also appeared in Der Spiegel, in Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Tagesspiegel, Neon and Frankfurter Rundschau. He is currently working as editor for ZEIT ONLINE, the online edition of Germany’s renowned weekly paper DIE ZEIT.

When I read your blog I wonder if it is still any history nowadays: ­maybe all the past becomes a part of popculture? You write about Hitler and Third Reich, but your posts are not historical analysis, but rather comments to youtube clips or more or less funny internet memes. Is there now more discussion and work on history (and traumatic times) in Facebook images and comments than at school? Could you tell me something about this from the Germany’s perspective?

Obviously, not all of history becomes part of culture and hence pop culture. For example, there is a Hitler comparison as means of politics in the US, in Germany and Israel, but I haven’t heard of any kind of Stalin or Mussolini comparison. Usually, this kind of in-take of culture of history happens in the form of mythology, mostly as national myths ­ and that’s probably true for Germany as well as for any other country or even Poland. The Third Reich, Hitler and the Holocaust are a tid bit different though. While most nations believe themselves to be the best of nations, this opportunity is lost for Germans ­ and for very good reasons so. There is, in most countries that are historically related to the Third Reich in some way, an especially strong motif of rememberance ­ with the moral aim that such things shall not happen again. But if you want to keep up the memory, you need to find ways to do this. The witnesses are dying eventually. And all you have left are history books and museums. What happened is this: When the historians have done their job for the better part, the cultural scene steps in, in order to translate the findings and the morals to a larger audience. But, as it is, a pop song or a Hollywood movie will not represent scientific findings. And since then the Holocaust, the Third Reich and Hitler have been passed from generation to generation and from scene to scene ­ and today it’s entirely possible to advertise with Hitler for pizza or condoms, to make jokes about Hitler and cartoons, that poke fun of hipsters. Make no mistake: hardly any of these jokes make fun of the Third Reich, of the victims or of history. They rather use the mythology of the Third Reich, which itself is as I said before, just a simple, sometimes wrong version of history to make comments about today (here is an intersting article from Israel’s Haaretz newspaper on that issue)

Can we say that Hitler has become a popculture icon of your country? Do you see this as a process of overworking the national postwar trauma and fighting with the myth (as you write in your blog), or is it a angerous direction of changes in the social memory: we prefer to see Hitler as a funny (almost fictional) comic character than to remember that he is a part of our true national histories?

We can say that Hitler has become a cartoon of himself in nearly every country of the world. But, yes, in a way. If someone wants to make a mean point about Germany today, you can always pull the Nazi card. Remember the cover of Wprost with Erika Steinbach on the German chancellor’s back some years ago? If it this wasn’t Hitler himself, it displays a a-historic useage of the symbols of the Third Reich. Interestingly enough, this usage is much more advance in the US and in England then it is in Germany for example. Or Austria. And again, for good reasons. Neither have the English and the Americans to be ashamed of this 12 years of history and hence the interest, as you write, to try to forget about the cruelties ­ which indeed might be part of the way that German deal with Hitler. On the other hand Germans do take that part of history very serious. Up to today Germany is the only country in the world that displays a memorial of it own crimes in the center of its capitol. And if you would follow the German debate, you would see that Germans are indeed rather reluctant to see the nevertheless existing humorous sides to the subject. As I said before, nearly non of the pop cultural references make fun of the crimes or the victims. On nearly non of them ignore the crimes or the victims ­ quite the opposite actually. Mostly, Nazis are displayed as pure evil, as criminals and rather unsympathetic people. I question that these stereotypes are very helpful in remembering history and in preventing future wars and genocides, but they are much easier to handle than the historic truths. Just look around in the neighbouring countries of Germany and you will find collaborateurs or fascist there, that helped the Nazis in a very similar way than many Germans did. Nevertheless, France, Italy or Hungary have never debated their role in the Third Reich in the same way as it happened in Germany. The point here is: ot only in cartoons and pop culture nations tend to prefer simple, easy stereotypes to the difficult truth. I guess there are good reasons to do so, especially in order to keep national coherence. But I am not an expert on national psychology, so this is pretty much guessing.

In Poland a few months ago we could observe some media confusion in the case of Hitler’s image printed on the advertising poster. It was just a scene from „Downfall” (by Oliver Hirschbiegel), a very popular internet meme, but it led to a serious discussion. How is it in Germany? How do young people try to cope with their grandparents’ nightmarish history?

For technical reasons the mentioned „Downfall meme” was not as strong in Germany as in any other country. The reason is: Germans speak German and hence the joke, which is pretty much based on the dubbing of the movie and the cruel effect of the helpless, angry dictator screaming is hence lost for Germans. But the German debate is following similar lines of argumentation, pretty much the one’s you mentioned in your prior questions: Should we accept humour that mentions Hitler? Should we allow any use of Hitler besides the one in a strictly political and historic sense? I personally would answer with a question myself: What could we do about it? These cultural and pop cultural productions do exist and have been existing for quite some time ­ starting with Charlie Chaplin and Lubitsch’s „To be or not to be”, continuing with Mel Brooks’s „Springtime for Hitler” and many, many more movies, songs, pictures and plays. So if we can’t prevent it, and I would also argue that we shouldn’t, what can we do? There are two things: First of all: Provide as many people as possible with good knowledge. And if I say good knowledge, I mean it. „Hitler was a bad man and all Germans are Nazis” is not knowledge, but just stupid, unfair stereotypes that to begin with ignore all Social Democratic, Communist, Christian and disabled victims.

So what should we do? Learn something about history, about the lack of knowledge, about the role of the National Conservatives in Germany, about how to treat minorities, about the misuse of democracy, about the role of the Wehrmacht, about the power of rhetoric and the media, about Antisemitism, about Antiziganism against the Sinti and Roma, learn something about why and how people collaborate with certain powers and how, learn something about the masses influence the individual. Based on that, it will be much easier to determine, what a joke actually is about. And what it is based on.

Your last question is actually very, very interesting: How do young people try to cope with their grandparents’ nightmarish history? My impression is: They hardly do so at all. Germans read and learn lots about the Third Reich in abstract, political and historic terms. But if you ask a young German about their grandfather’s role in the Third Reich, they will most likely know very little. Which is a shame, of course, but then again the same is true for families as for nations: If you want them to stick together, you probably have to ignore some inconvenient truths. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Because this is another inconvenient truth: That’s probably just what people are like and how history works. Or is there anyone who’s still angry about Sweden’s war crimes in the Thirty Years’ War?

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